Roll over Beethoven! Trying to master the piano to concert standard 25 years after she last played became a terrifying experience for Sue Perkins
For Sue Perkins, it was the stuff of nightmares: finding herself back in her old school, at the keyboard of the very piano that had caused her untold anguish as a youngster.
The TV presenter and comedian had volunteered – 'rashly', she admits now – to take part in a series called First Love, which reunites celebrities with instruments they'd played as children, and challenges them to master them as adults.
Now, Sue is no slouch in the music department. A past winner of the Maestro series, which taught stars how to conduct an orchestra, she has developed into a talented baton-waver who has held her own at the Royal Albert Hall. And when she did play the piano as a child, she did more than bash out Chopsticks. Sue reached Grade 8 and was thus considered quite a talent.
Sue Perkins volunteered 'rashly', she admits now to take part in a series called First Love, which reunites celebrities with instruments they'd played as children
But for the grown-up Sue – now famous for shows like The Great British Bake Off and Supersizers – sitting down at the piano she had played during school assemblies was, she says, 'more terrifying than anything that had gone before.
'I hadn't had a happy relationship with the piano. I'd actually stopped playing when a new girl had come to the school and been asked to play in assembly, like I used to do. She was so much better than I was. I couldn't deal with it.
'I was such a perfectionist then that I never wanted to do anything unless I could excel at it. And I felt I couldn't excel at the piano. So I gave up. And ever since, the thought of playing filled me with self-loathing.'
Little wonder, then, she felt 'physically sick' when told she would have four months to prepare to play to 500 people at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
Worse, the piece she'd be playing would be Beethoven's haunting 'Pathtique' Sonata – not for the faint-hearted.
'With the Pathtique there's no getting away from emotions,' says Sue. 'With slow music you can't clown around.'
We've become used to celebrities making so-called 'personal journeys' in these sorts of programmes, but Sue's is more personal than most. A shy child with a slight stammer, Sue says a lot of her early life was 'awkward'.
Also game: In the same series, Alastair Campbell learns to play the bagpipes again
She grew up feeling inferior to a
younger sister who was 'taller, better, brighter and blonde'. Music
helped her come out of her shell, but the fear of not being good enough
Obviously, she hasn't done too badly in life, studying at Cambridge before breaking into comedy, then mainstream TV. But it is the insecure child in her that makes her contribution to First Love so compelling.
Today she describes herself as a 'weirdo, with a slightly neurotic perfectionist streak' who has always struggled to express herself emotionally. 'I'm the sort of person who mumbles, “I love you”. I find emotions difficult and embarrassing. The trouble is, music is all about emotions, and to do it well, you have to let all that out.'
So did she triumph in what she describes as her '25-year grudge match' Let's just say that at the keyboard she is, mercifully, more Andr Previn than Eric Morecambe. Not that any of it was about getting laughs. 'That's why it was so terrifying,' she concludes. 'I've gone through my whole life relying on humour when things are difficult. Here, I couldn't. And it taught me a lot about myself.'
Some unexpected famous lives are laid bare in this second series of First Love. Can you imagine Green Wing star Stephen Mangan as a folk guitarist, or Peep Show actress Sophie Winkleman as an operatic star Well, they couldn't either until the gauntlet is thrown down.
With a troubled background, ex-Happy
Mondays singer Shaun Ryder never had the luxury of childhood music
lessons, so his revisiting of his childhood dream – to play the
saxophone – is especially touching. And then there is Alastair Campbell,
once Tony Blair's righthand man, who allowed the cameras to film him
getting to grips with the bagpipes he had played as a child.
‘A new girl was so much better at piano, I gave up'
In his First Love film, Alastair finds himself playing in front of 2,000 Scottish music fans in, gulp, Glasgow. On St Andrew's Day. Perhaps the unlikeliest contributor is millionaire DJ Carl Cox, who grew up in south London but has homes all over the world. He played piano ('sort of') as a child, but gave up at the age of 11, to his mother's dismay.
He accepted the challenge to play the keyboard on stage in Ibiza with the band the Brand New Heavies. How did he fare 'I bought a top-of-the-range keyboard, then hardly touched it because I was so busy with work.
'When I was still picking out the tune on one hand a week before the performance, I got really scared. And getting on that stage was the most terrifying thing I've done. I once did a DJ set in front of 1.8 million people, but I was still more petrified playing the keyboard in front of a few hundred.
'But I did it, and made my mum proud. I haven't stopped smiling since.'
First Love begins on Sky Arts 1, Tuesday, 8pm.